This acrobatic figure lies inside St Botolph’s Church, Shepshed, Leicestershire. The church was founded in the 11th century. The oldest part of the church, the west tower and spire, dates from the 13th century The nave, with clerestory and aisles, and chancel date from the 15th-century. The style of the figure is hard to date but would seem to come from one of these later dates. It appears to be female but there is some damage evident that may indicate the figure was originally male.
The figure consists of a human somewhat grim looking head with a pill box style hat or hair, a pair of splayed legs with what appear to be three lobes in the crotch.A cat’s/beast head peeks out from between the legs with what could be cloven feet or paws beneath. Usually this figure is photographed directly from the front and the decoration on either side of the head has been described as an elaborate hair style. As you can see from the photos below the “hair” is in fact another two heads, skull on the left and what appears to be a less stern looking woman complete with clothed breasts on the right. The female has a similar style pill box hairdo/hat. The carved lines on both hats may indicate that they are meant to be crowns.
This figure has been referred to as a “sheela na gig” but as you can see from the photos is not obviously female or male for that matter. The three lobes could be an indication of a penis and testicles but if they are the execution is very modest. There is not anything that could safely be described as a vulva. Nevertheless the imagery in the carving in complex and obviously symbolic, though with male, female, death,beast and possible royal imagery it’s a little hard to interpret it’s exact meaning. Thanks go to Clare Heron for the use of her detailed photographs of the figure.
The figure is one of a number of carvings which adorn the lower part of the tomb of Prior of the Abbey from 1480 to 1491, Rowland Leschman.
The left hand side showing a skull with clasped hands
The right hand head appears to be a less stern looking female.
This roof boss in Sheffield Cathedral is often reported as a Sheela Na Gig.Due to is abstract nature and lack of genitals this would not seem to be the case. It could be a representation of an acrobat figure but again is very abstract. Local tradition holds that it is a representation of the river Don.
The main door to St Mary’s church Wroxham, Norfolk holds two, blue stained figures which while splay legged are not exhibitionist figures. They serve as good example of figures which should be exhibitionist but in fact aren’t (compare to the splayed legged figure at Lower Swell). There is however another explanation of the figure which is related to the Sheela Na Gig phenomenon. Their feet appear to be somewhat fin like which may mean that the figures depict Melusine.
Melusine or the Double Tailed Mermaid
The double tailed mermaid is another religious sculptural motif which can be found all over Europe. Unlike the Sheela Na Gig which is more or less a 12th century phenomenon this motif persists into later periods as well. In fact it is still is use today with it’s most widespread, somewhat sanitized, incarnation being the Starbucks logo. Are the Wroxham figures actually mermaids? The fin like feet do tend to lend weight to this argument.
All images By Charlesdrakew (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks go to Paul Ellerton for sending me these pictures
Unfortunately there is not a lot of detail about this church. The information booklet in the church says that it was started in the 12th century and the carvings could originate from that period. The figure consists of two heads, the left has its eyes being pulled by a smaller figure while right is accompanied by an apparently ithyphallic male figure. This figure appears to have a hand holding a massively exaggerated penis. The fingers of the hand appear to be broken seemingly by weathering.
This figure was reported to us by a local of Saintbury Gloucester as a Sheela na gig. From initial photographs it seemed promising as there appeared to be a cleft between the legs but when we visited the site this proved to be a trick of the light. Nonetheless the figure is obviously very old and does have certain sheela type characteristics such as the large head.
‘A figure preserved in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral was noted in 1894’.
Glasgow Cathedral has a history going back over 1600 years, when the site was first blessed for burials by St Ninian around 397 AD. Later in the 6th century, Kentigern popularly known as Mungo was selected as bishop by the King, and the people. St Mungo was born on the shore of Fife near Culross. He trained for the priesthood at Culross by St Serf. Later St Mungo founded a monastic community, in Glasgow, and built a cathedral. St Mungo died in 603AD. St Mungo’s Cathedral was destroyed or severely damaged by fire, and the older building was rebuilt, and dedicated in 1136. The Lower Church, which houses the figure, was created during the 12th century by Bishop William de Bondington (1233 – 1258). Further developments to this part of the Cathedral occurred during the 13th and 15th century, when the Blacader aisle of the Lower Church was added by Archbishop Blacadere (1483 – 1508).
The figure is located in the crypt, or Lower Church. In the far left-hand (northeast) corner of the Lower Church, is the doorway to St Nicholas Chapel. The figure is located on the bottom left of the frieze, which surrounds the doorway. The arch of the doorway is richly carved and for some reason very worn despite it being in the crypt. This wear is at odds with most of the other carving in the crypt which could mean that the door was originally an external one.
The Glasgow figure is very odd indeed, and difficult to say what it originally represents. The large triangular shaped head with a central groove sits on Herculean shoulders. Two powerful arms come to rest on the lower abdominal area, and the broad ill-defined legs are held in an open manner. The figure has a central ridge on the torso, running up from the pelvic area to the chest and two lower ridges either side.
Speculatively, the two lower ridges could represent, the vulva, while the large central ridge, a penis. To conclude could this figure represent a Sheela na Gig, a male phallic figure, a penis sucking hermaphrodite, or even a very worn minstrel figure playing some type of pipes?
If you have any doubts to the international nature of exhibitionist religious carvings then this figure should go some way to persuading you.
This figure lies on the church of St Olaf, at Stiklestad in Trondelag, Norway. It is one of around 20, 12th century stone churches in the area. The exact date of the church’s construction is not known but it is thought to date from around 1180 which fits in well with dates for British exhibitionist figures. The Nidarosdomen cathedral at Trondheim was being built around this time which also carries an alleged female exhibitionist figure on the corbel table. There are many similarities between Lincoln Cathedral in the UK and the Nidarosdomen and it is thought that English masons were employed in its construction. This also seems to apply to the sculptors. A number of elaborate soapstone carvings on smaller churches in the area, carry the same signatures of masons who worked on the Cathedral.
The figure is part of a series of Romanesque fragments which have been reset into the present church wall.
Is this a Sheela?
While the figure is undoubtedly exhibitionist it would be hard to call it female. However it does seem to lack male genitals and there is a distinct hole beneath the hands. The figure is richly attired and the pleated “skirt” would seem to suggest a male along with the boots. (For a similar “skirt” see the warrior figures on the door at Kilpeck. The lack of female attributes would seem to suggest that this may be an anus shower rather than sheela na gig. Saying that another interpretation is that a male figure is being shown with female genitalia suggesting possible satirical element.
Thanks go to Eskil Følstad of the Stiklestad National Culture Centre for supplying the pictures and information on this figure.
St Olaf, The Perpetual King of Norway
King Olaf Haraldsson (Olaf II) was king in Norway between 1015-1030. King Olaf is a good example of the international state of religion and politics during the 11th and 12th centuries. Olaf has strong ties with England as he spent a number of years there fighting the Danes. After being baptised in Rouen he returned to Norway and brought with him bishops from England and Germany. Bishop Grimkell came from England and it was he that eventually organised the beatification of the King.
At his death at the battle of Stiklestad he was more or less fighting his own subjects. His son Magnus the Good ruled Norway after a brief hiatus and its thought that through his efforts the cult of St Olaf was promoted and came to prominence. A number of churches can be found in England and Ireland dedicated to St Olaf (also spelt Olave) especially in area with Norse connections. There are ones in London, York, Dublin and Waterford.
This figure resides in the large parish church of Melbourne Derbyshire. It is mentioned in Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District and Images of Lust.Images of Lust does not categorise it as a Sheela but describes it as “near exhibitionist”. The booklet in the church however describes it as a sheela and assigns the usual “fertility symbol” meaning to it. The church is richly carved and in a good state of preservation. “Images of Lust” includes the “miser” and the “luxuria” figures. The book describes the male luxuria figure as being “once exhibitionist” but in my opinion it never has been, have a look at the photo and judge for yourself. The miser and luxuria figures are duplicated on the side door of the church but have suffered greater weathering. On the main door the luxuria is on the left while on the side door the luxuria is on the right.
The rest of the church is fascinating. Built in the 12th century it is extremely large for a parish church almost a mini cathedral. No one knows quite why it is so large as the parish has never been big enough to need such a large place of worship. The size of the church would seem to suggest that this was a high status building and the quality and number of carvings in the church also attest to this. There are a number pentagrams incised on various stones in the church which are thought to be masons marks. There are also many other Romanesque carvings in the church well worth a look at including a bestial cat. There is also a well preserved medieval painting of a demon. The church has it’s own website at http://www.melbourneparishchurch.co.uk/.
The carving itself has some very sheela like characteristics the splayed leg position and the positioning of the arms is very much like the Darley Dale and Haddon Hall sheelas which are also in Derbyshire. The carving also has foliage spewing from its mouth which makes more like a “green man” but this characteristic is not unknown in Sheelas as well take for instance the South Tawton figure in Devon. The figure is not human and has more in common with “green man” characteristics than those of a sheela. In the end this will have to go under the “nearly but not quite” column of Sheela carvings.